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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

In Praise of Introspection

However healthy it often is to try to fit in and assume we must just be like everyone else, there are also benefits in sometimes accepting that we might in the end be simply rather odd — though this needn’t be a cause of particularly concern or shame.

Perhaps we simply do belong to the peculiar tribe of those who love — above pretty much anything else — to introspect, that is, to try to make sense of themselves, to process their emotions, to analyse their immaturities and to understand the psychological mechanisms they inhabit. We, the happy odd few, belong to that minor clan of the avid self-knowers who take entirely to heart the Ancient Greek command to ‘Know yourself’.

To be so intensely concerned with self-knowledge has probably equipped us with a number of strange traits. We are likely to very much enjoy our own company. We might not mind spending a whole day alone, marinading in ourselves. It’s never a problem if someone cancels dinner on us. We might keep a diary or a file on our computer where we spend hours taking matters apart. We might like hot baths or solitary walks, often in the evening. We might read a lot but in a distinctive way: always looking out for the ways in which the words of others shed light on, and more clearly define, bits of ourselves. We’re likely to be impatient with people who seek relentlessly to stay on the surface of things. Probably someone once asked us over dinner — slightly defensively — why we were ‘interviewing’ them and we weren’t at all; we were just directing to them some of the manic curiosity we normally devote to ourselves. 

In love, half the fun won’t be about sex or cuddles, it will be that there is someone there to discuss one of the world’s most interesting phenomena — relationships -— in real time with us.

We might try therapy and even though we may have had our share of disappointing shrinks, it will continue to be an area of intrinsic fascination: many of our favourite books will be psychological ones. As therapy inspires us to do, even though it might have been a long since we lived with our family of birth, we will continue to explore how the past informs our present; we’re never quite done with reflecting on mum and dad. We’re no longer angry with them as we once were, we’re just very interested.

People may often try to persuade us to do other things they call fun — go to the beach, come to a party, go shopping — and even though we’ll agree and there’ll be pleasant moments, the truth is that our favourite pastime remains sitting at home, probably in bed, with a notebook, trying to work out what it means to be alive. 

That’s ideally how — after many years — we’d like death to find us. Not scared or oblivious, but curious and attentive, wondering what we’re about to undergo and still speculating on what the brief passage through existence was really all about. We won’t have finished knowing ourselves but we’ll have been most alive whenever we tried to do so.

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